Last week, I at last picked up the copy of NW that has been waiting on my shelf since last November. I first became aware of Zadie Smith when PBS aired the television adaptation of White Teeth. I was so engaged by the first episode I had to get my hands on the book immediately, and I was not disappointed. Smith doesn’t disappoint.
But I found NW lacked the humour I normally associate with Zadie Smith. White Teeth actually had me laughing out loud at times. I didn’t laugh in NW. What NW shares with Smith’s earlier novels are its concerns with how the personal is the social and the political. Here again, we have characters searching with various levels of success for self-definition while negotiating the nuances of class and race.
The novel examines the lives of Leah, Keisha who changes her name to Natalie, Felix, and Nathan, all ex-students from the same school and one-time residents of or near the Caldwell Estate. Leah and Keisha/Natalie are “best friends” since childhood.
Just as one identifies with one character, the focalization shifts. The quadruple focus and short chapters organized into sections with titles such as “Visitation,” “Guest,” “Host” and “Crossing,” mean that at times the novel feels utterly fragmented. Some chapters—sometimes numbered sequentially, sometimes simply introduced with a postal code—are barely two pages long. With regard to “Host,” discussing chapters at all is inappropriate. Smith divides this section of the novel into really short sections, perhaps just a paragraph or so, identified by numbered and titled sub-headings. This strategy leaves the reader a little breathless, with a sense that things are out of control: arguably an appropriate response to events in the novel. The last section of the work also titled “Visitation” draws the various strands of the novel together, so although one cannot really talk of a well-defined plot structure in NW, there is a sense of resolution.
Nevertheless, while I found the novel’s conclusion satisfactory, I was left with an overall mood of sadness, of dissolution, and of not quite despair, rather of bewilderment. Leah tells Natalie, “I just don’t understand why I have this life. . . .Why that girl and not us. Why that poor bastard on Albert Road. It doesn’t make sense to me.” (292). Natalie’s response is pragmatic: “Because we worked harder. . . .We wanted to get out. . . . people generally get what they deserve” (293).
Perhaps this is, as Natalie suggests it might be, an “ugly” (293) truth, but it seems to be the conclusion of the novel. I was intellectually satisfied but emotionally saddened, and it is this overall sense of characters’ bewilderment, and sense of an unanswered “Why?” that remains with me after finishing NW. Smith’s evocation of place is utterly convincing. One can hear the glottal stopped words, hear speech cadences still resonant with echoes of Jamaican patois, of African dialects; feel the busy, bustling streets, see the dreariness of dilapidated estates. One knows of London’s (and other cities’) social deprivation, has read facts, figures, is aware of the arguments explaining poverty, explaining violence, is aware of attempts to make things better, to bring about change.
One is afraid such attempts are ultimately to no avail and is left still with that unanswered “Why?” For if “people generally [do] get what they deserve” (293), does anyone really deserve poverty, violence and squalor? NW leaves me sadly asking these questions.
It will be interesting to see how the novel fares on Wednesday when the winners of the Women’s Prize for fiction are announced.
Images adapted from Google Map for Albert Road NW6 https://maps.google.ca and Transit for London Tube Map http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/standard-tube-map.pdf